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Aceh Shariah Police Chase the ‘Immoral’

The Shariah police questioning a group of young women for failing to cover their heads with veils in public in Banda Aceh. (Photo: Luis Sinco, LA Times)

The young couple is totally busted. They sit at a beach-side park, near signs forbidding teens from sitting too close. He has his arm around her shoulder. She isn’t wearing her jilbab , the traditional Islamic head scarf.

Just like that, the morality cops are in their face.

“You two aren’t married, right?” asks Syafruddin, the rail-thin leader of the six-man patrol, standing stiffly, one hand behind his back. “So you shouldn’t sit next to one another.”

He separates the two and confiscates their IDs. Later, he says the team will open an investigation of the couple, especially given that the young man lied, at first insisting the girl was his sister.

“We want to see how far this relationship has progressed,” Syafruddin says. “What they were doing could have led to something sexual.”

The team is known as “the vice and virtue patrol,” on the beat in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia to employ Islamic law for its criminal code. The laws were introduced in 2002 after the Indonesian region was granted autonomy as part of efforts to end a decades-long guerrilla war.

The Shariah police consider themselves the community’s public conscience. And on their weekly patrol, they take seriously their role of enforcing the religious strictures.

Now their mission may become more deadly serious.

In September, Aceh’s provincial legislature passed a law saying married people who commit adultery can be sentenced to death by stoning. It also toughened public caning laws, adding more lashes for gays, pedophiles and gamblers.

The new law, which still requires the approval of the provincial governor, has outraged human rights groups, who say the code unfairly targets women and violates international treaties. Under the guidelines, the Shariah police can even raid hotel rooms in search of violators. They develop informants and work undercover.

Many of the country’s 200 million Muslims are moderates. Some worry the new laws will discourage much-needed foreign investment in a province devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

None of it fazes the Shariah police.

“We know many foreigners and some Indonesians do not understand this,” says Marzuki Abdullah, commander of the 1,500-member Sharia force.

“But Muslims must obey the law. They must go to prayer, do their fasting. Women should dress in an acceptable way.

“Our job is to make sure that they do.”

Norma Manalu wistfully runs her colorful purple silk jilbab through her fingers. She has a love-hate relationship with the elegant garment.

“It’s hot. It’s not appropriate for the climate,” the 35-year-old director of Aceh’s Human Rights Coalition says. “It’s something I choose because it’s beautiful, not because a man tells me to do so.”

Manalu is a rebel. Often, to make a point about women’s rights she walks in public wearing jeans, her head uncovered, ignoring the taunts and ridicule. She is sickened at the sight of men and women being publicly caned by a tormentor in a mask.

Manalu contends that women get the worst of the bargain. Many are treated as outcasts after their punishment, while men are welcomed back into society.

“It amazes me that in a modern world with sophisticated law and order, we even consider doing this,” she says. “It’s barbaric.”

She dismisses the Shariah police, who she believes enjoy harassing young women.

“Men make these rules based on some misguided image of how women should look,” she says. “Here in Aceh, women must accept it or suffer harassment.”

A mile away, at religious police headquarters, Abdullah dismisses the uproar over the stoning law. And he says the harsher caning laws also have been overblown. Since 2003, he says, only nine people have been caned in Aceh.

“Men take their lashes like the women,” he says. “They’re equal.”

Abdullah is angered each time he sees couples holding hands or a woman without her veil. He favors a proposed ordinance in one Aceh area that would ban women from wearing pants, including jeans.

“Most pants are too tight,” he says. “They show the curves of a woman’s body. With many you can see the shadow of the vagina.”

But the religious police know they cannot fight television — the racy shows broadcast from Malaysia and Jakarta.

As Abdullah speaks, an office TV shows a shampoo ad featuring a woman in a towel, caressing her long black hair.

Aceh’s top morality cop pauses in mid-sentence. He blushes, then catches himself and scoffs.

The morality cops are on the move. They crouch in military formation, closing in on their prey.

Beneath a row of gracefully bending palms, they’ve spotted several shady characters at a lonely beach-side youth hangout. They could be unmarried young men cavorting with girls not wearing a proper jilbab. They could be holding hands, kissing or who knows what else.

Waves breaking at their feet, the officers round a rocky promontory to confront six baffled men casting nets into the water.

“They were just fishing,” says a disappointed Syafruddin.

And so it goes. All afternoon, they chase down suspects, like the college girls caught without their jilbabs.

As Syafruddin launches into his lecture, a woman wearing a black T-shirt reading “Lucky Girl” examines her shoes in shame.

“For women,” the officer says, “wearing a veil is like a motorcycle rider wearing a helmet. It’s for your own protection.”

When the police move on, the woman shrugs. “I wear a veil at work,” she says. “I didn’t think it mattered here. It’s the beach.”

Within moments, the team stops three girls on a motorcycle — all wearing their veils. This time, Syafruddin has another problem. Their leggings are too tight, too revealing, he says. They should go home and change them at once.

He walks off in search of other laws to enforce. The girls climb back aboard the motorcycle, looking embarrassed.

One patrolman lingers for just a moment. He smiles at the girls.

And then he winks.

Los Angeles Times

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